Wednesday, February 8, 2012

TANF and "Disconnected" Mothers

After welfare reform in 1996, millions of single mothers left public assistance. Many of those parents were able to secure work and their incomes rose. However a large minority of these mothers, particularly those who were poorest and living alone with their children, did not benefit from increased income and left welfare without a connection to the workforce.

The poverty numbers released last fall y the Census Bureau indicated that of female-headed households 31.6 percent were living below poverty in 2010. Furthermore, for related children in families with a female householder 46.9 percent of children were living in poverty and for related children under age 6 in families with a female householder, 58.2 percent were in poverty. In order for public policy and programming to best support single mothers living in poverty and their families it is important to appreciate the varying dynamics at play for these families and the challenges they face.

The Urban Institute report, Dynamics of Being Disconnected from Work and TANF, states that there are a range of reasons that can lead to the beginning of a disconnected “spell.” However, the most common reason is the loss of a job (and all earnings). The report stated that out of all of the women ages 18-54 in their study who became disconnected, 59.8 percent had lost work and all earnings.

The Center on Children and Families at the Brookings Institution’s report, Helping Disconnected Single Mothers, presents both background information and policy recommendations. The report outlines some of the challenges that mothers who are disconnected experience, as opposed to those mothers who left welfare for work. Some of those characteristics include:

  • Less education and greater numbers of learning disabilities;
  • Higher levels of past or current substance abuse issues;
  • Higher rates of mental and physical health problems;
  • Younger children with larger families and often caring for someone with health issues; and
  • Current or previous relationships with domestic violence present.

In order to best meet the needs of these families it is important to consider the barriers to work that are present. One suggestion from the Brookings report is the development of a Temporary and Partial Work Waiver Program that would allow states to link families to medical and economic supports while providing more intensive case work to ease the severity and duration of employment barriers. The report also recommends subsidizing program participation to address substance abuse and domestic violence, ensuring mental health services are available for low income families and the expansion of health insurance programs to ensure access to medical care (additional recommendations can be found in the report).

With TANF reauthorization on the horizon it is an important time to consider how we are best meeting the needs of low-income and poor families. In considering policies to address the needs of these families, it is critical to look at the research and consider the challenges being experienced by subgroups that will be impacted by policy and program decisions. For state policymakers the implications of these decisions will have a profound impact on the families in their states.

For more resources to help address the needs of families visit